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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Voters in Iowa rank immigration as very important in the polls, right up there with the economy and the war in Iraq. That may be due to the influx of immigrants there, many of whom came to work in the state's pork and poultry plants. While still small in overall numbers, Hispanics have concentrated in several Iowa towns, changing the political landscape.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN: Iowa is still a very white state, 91 percent of the population is Caucasian. But in some places like Marshalltown, about an hour drive from Des Moines, those numbers are changing.

Mr. DAVID LON WALKER (Police Chief, Marshalltown, Iowa): Well, the town has growing and it's growing predominantly because of the influx of Hispanics. The town is probably now about, oh, roughly 30,000, and probably a third of that is Hispanic.

KAHN: Police Chief David Lon Walker says the huge hog processing plant on the edge of town began drawing hundreds of young men from Mexico looking for work about 15 years ago.

Mr. WALKER: And they would do what a lot of young single men do the first time away from home or the first time they have money in their pockets, and they get in trouble. And that caused some problems in the community that stirred some racial tensions.

KAHN: Walker says soon after, wives and children started coming. Schools began to struggle to educate students that didn't speak English, and now Spanish is heard in the grocery stores. All that bothers Olav Grossland(ph), who volunteers at the local veteran's home.

Mr. OLAV GROSSLAND (Veterans Home Volunteer): When my people came here, they had to go through all the paperwork, whatever it was, back, you know, four to five generations ago. But coming across the border, no, no, that's not right.

KAHN: The rapid immigration into the state is troubling to many Iowans with 30 percent of likely Republican voters saying they favor mass deportation of illegal immigrants. GOP candidates have seized on that emotion.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Representative TOM TANCREDO (Republican, Colorado; Presidential Candidate): Hi, I'm Tom Tancredo and I approved this message because someone needs to say it.

Unidentified Man #1: There are consequences to open borders beyond the 20 million aliens who've come to take our jobs. Islamic terrorists…

KAHN: This week, long-shot Republican candidate Tancredo started running this ad in Iowa. It shows a hooded man placing a backpack in a crowded shopping mall. A bomb in the abandoned bag explodes by the end of the ad.

(Soundbite of explosion)

KAHN: Not all anti-immigration campaigning has been as incendiary. In his new ad, former Senator Fred Thompson says solving the illegal immigration problem is a matter of national security. And Mitt Romney has been airing this ad for more than a week in Iowa.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Governor, Massachusetts; Presidential Candidate): As president, I'll oppose amnesty, cut funding for sanctuary cities, and secure our borders.

KAHN: Romney's sanctuary reference is a jab at Rudy Giuliani, who Romney says supported safe harbor cities and college tuition breaks for illegal immigrants as mayor of New York. Campaigning in Iowa, Giuliani shot back saying, Massachusetts was a chockfull of sanctuary cities during Romney's tenure.

Democrats this week also joined in the fray. In the run-up to tonight's Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton was pushed to clarify her position on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. She's against it, so is John Edwards - a change from his position four years ago. But for all the political strife, polls show that a clear majority of Iowans, both Democrats and Republicans, favor letting undocumented workers earn a shot at citizenship.

Back in Marshalltown, Mayor Gene Beach echoes that moderate view.

Mayor GENE BEACH (Marshalltown, Iowa): Change is happening and we need to deal with it in an effective way.

KAHN: He says his central Iowa town was withering before Hispanic immigrants moved in and revitalized the economy.

Unidentified Man #2: All right. Let's read all of these: bike, bite, fight.

KAHN: At the local community college center, volunteers give English lessons and citizenship classes to Marshalltown's newest residents. Teaching supervisor Virginia De La Cruz(ph) says racial tensions in the town ebb and flow. They were high after last year's immigration raids at the pork plant. And she says they're high again as the candidates ratchet up their anti-immigrant rhetoric. But De La Cruz says she's learned to put up a barrier to guard herself from the occasional speech she hears in town.

Ms. VIRGINIA DE LA CRUZ (Teaching Supervisor): Especially I can see the closer we get to the election, that wall is just going to be built higher and higher here.

KAHN: Strong enough, she says, to last her through the November general election.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

BLOCK: You can find out where the presidential hopefuls stand on immigration. That's at our issues page at npr.org.

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